Manage the manageable, embrace uncertainty – 21st century project management

We take a brief look at how the modern concept of project management was formed and highlight some of the challenges that arise when trying to adapt traditional project management approaches to suit more fluid organisations.

Whilst project management has been around in some form or another since the building of the pyramids, project management in the modern, structured form began to develop in the early part of the 20th century. 100 years later, project management as a profession is now well established. Accreditation has been available from the late 1980s, and there is a myriad of well-established continuous professional development options available.

As the profession of project management matures, the available pool of expertise, often with decades of experience, grows too.

We are at the stage now where the concept of the project is well-established, and most medium to large scale organisations now employ some form of task management professional.

Nonetheless, after 100 years of maturity sponsors still embark on projects with apprehension and an unhealthy level of anxiety, wondering if they will realise the outcomes, which they have committed to the investors. We are confident that the nervousness of business sponsors, which is largely related to the unacceptable failure rate of the projects, are embedded in the very foundation of project processing & management.

Figure 1: A Short History of Project Management

Project management in its current form developed as a process to manage cost and time to market. From its roots in construction, defence, and engineering it was developed within mechanically structured industries based on a command and control style of management hierarchy. In this environment, processes and tools were developed to bring control, certainty, and efficiency to the expenditure of resources and timescales. It delivered what was often a very tangible outcome, with a path towards that outcome proceeding in a linear (or waterfall) manner.

This command and control style management of expenditure was transferred to more fluid organisations, operating a matrix management structure, seeking business outcomes based on changing behaviours, attitudes and habits. Clearly, applying tools and techniques designed for managing linear activities doesn’t produce an optimum result when used to manage non-linear challenges. This is at the heart of the problem with project management methods that are commonly used.

At Pathfinder, we have acknowledged this shortcoming of project management methods and designed a structure and an approach to address it. We use project management for what it was designed to do, which is the management of linear activities to control cost. We supplement project management with a change mobilisation process. This enables us to implement new habits, tensions, priorities, and mindset that are required to achieve lasting business outcomes. Mobilisation is our term for shifting what is often referred to as the organisation’s culture.

Figure 2: The Spectrum of Execution

To design and configure a change project, we examine the level and the nature of change that is required to achieve business results. Figure 2. The spectrum of execution demonstrates a framework that we use to determine the project’s structures and the intensity of change mobilisation that would be required.

The complexity of the projects that have been initiated to produce engineering type of outcomes can be managed using traditional project management methods. However, projects that involve high degrees of people change, organisational redesign, or behavioural change would require mobilisation and organic project management structures.

Figure 3: The Project as an Engagement

There are two distinct roles in our Project Model, shown in Figure 3. The Project Manager is accountable to invest resources as efficiently as possible; the Mobiliser is accountable to design and implement new behaviours and processes to deliver the benefits. The focus on both the investment AND the return ensures the right tools and techniques are used in the right place, for the right reasons.

While project management (the management of investment) is always required, its primacy depends on where on the spectrum the project lies. Pathfinder projects at the ONTOLOGICAL [1] end of the spectrum and are very much driven and lead by the Mobiliser.

For the largest delivery challenges, we balance the tension that will always arise between investment and return by creating an Engagement Manager role. They represent the sponsor’s concerns and make sure all decisions are made from the viewpoint of satisfying the sponsor and delivering overall outcomes.

In summary, at Pathfinder we have stopped trying to turn project management into something it is not. Instead, we have gone back to basics, back to the fundamental questions being asked of our sponsors;

  • Manage my investment
  • Deliver my returns

The move towards Agile (see panel), extreme project management, and other flavours of project management are doomed to only ever be partially successful because of the inherent paradox of trying to bring certainty to an inherently uncertain activity – changing human behaviour.

We have proven this approach on projects from a few months duration to the largest multi-annual programmes. The clarity it brings and the freedom it creates helps ensure successful outcomes each time. So, let’s stop trying to evolve project management into something it is not. Let us use it for what it was designed to do – manage the manageable, and for those non-linear elements, embrace the uncertainty!

To hear more about Pathfinder’s approach to delivery visit our Programme Execution page.

This blog was written by Paul Fegan and Saiid Ordibehesht.

[1] Ontic is the study of entities dealing with physical, real, or fact; and ‘ontology’ is the study of the being dealing with being human

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